The New Imperialism

Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This is the last of David Harvey’s books that I’ll read (or re-read) for a while, and I’ve already reviewed some of his other books here, so I’ll pretty much stick to what this book offers in terms of the capitalist versus territorial logics (ideas he borrows from Giovanni Arrighi) of the “new imperialism.” I’ll also focus on the chapter on primitive accumulation or, as he rebrands it, “accumulation by dispossession.” Harvey calls the new imperialism “capitalist imperialism,” a formulation that encompasses the (contradictory) dialectic between territorially based forms of power and the “molecular processes of capital accumulation in space and time” (26). In the case of the former, imperialism is a “distinctively political project on the part of actors whose power is based in command of a territory and a capacity to mobilize its human and natural resources towards political, economic, and military ends,” while the latter constitutes “a diffuse political-economic process in space and time in which command over and use of capital takes primacy” (26).

Rather than supposing an automatic strategic correspondence between the two, Harvey traces how these two variants of imperialism can work in intertwined tandem or at cross-purposes. He explores the contradictions by also working through Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “A never-ending accumulation of property must be based on a never-ending accumulation of power…. The limitless process of capital accumulation needs the political structure of so ‘unlimited a Power’ that it can protect growing property by constantly growing more powerful” (34). Harvey emphasizes both the military might of the United States, but also acknowledges how power on an international stage also requires the manufacturing of consent. He draws on a particular definition of hegemony, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere, as the exercise of power through consent and leadership, to describe this potentially more cooperative component of “capitalist imperialism.”

The difficulty for U.S. imperialists is “the delicate balance between keeping the world open enough to allow the capitalistic logic to unfold relatively free of constraints and keeping territorial logics stable and confined enough to prevent the rise of any grand challenge to US military and political dominance” (84). And he traces the vicissitudes of this process from the 1870s up to the onset of neoliberalization in the 1970s—first in the U.S. and then globally, as the reconstitution of class power and an attempt by the U.S. to maintain hegemony globally. He traces how crises of overaccumulation—the seeming unemployability of surplus capital and labor—can be temporarily resolved by spatio-temporal fixes.

While dismissing Rosa Luxemburg’s thesis on under-consumption as the source of such crises, he does want to rescue the notion of capitalism needing something outside of itself—its other—for its continual reproduction. And it’s in this process of cannibalizing its outsides that primitive accumulation, or his preferred term, “accumulation by dispossession,” becomes operative. Such outsides, according to Harvey, can be seized (if they pre-exist) or they can be actively produced.

Harvey writes: “The umbilical cord that ties together accumulation by dispossession and expanded reproduction is that given by finance capital and the institutions of credit, backed, as ever, by state powers” (152). An example of such a process would be state- or IMF-orchestrated devaluations. Much as Gillian Hart argues in the piece I just reviewed, he claims that the organic links between expanded reproduction and primitive accumulation should open doors for alliances among groups on the receiving end of both processes (175-176). His caveat, however, is: “But the reconciliation depends crucially on recognizing the fundamental political role of accumulation by dispossession as a fulcrum of what class struggle is and should be construed to be about” (178). This formulation makes sense as far as Harvey’s own definition of accumulation by dispossession and the forms it can take are quite broad—rightly so, in my opinion.



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